Sunday, March 19, 2006

Paddle Your Camus

Marc at American Future links to this wonderful assessment of the international Left's current ethical quagmire by Alan Johnson, Democratiya's editor and co-organiser of Unite Against Terror.

The piece is expanded from a speech he gave in Paris in February, titled "Camus: Moral Clarity on an Age of Terror." Camus was a good choice to hang this on, both for his lifelong opposition to totalitarianism and for his personal tragedy in trying to shore up a moderate's middle and a cross-cultural dialogue in Algeria, in the first modern war between the West and Islam. According to Johnson, "the left has not seen the terrorist threat plain":

Like the dreamy citizens of Oran in Camus' novel The Plague, it has embraced denial ('there are no rats') or worse - incoherent anti-Americanism ('the rats are to be defended') or self-loathing ('we are the rats').

"The left," he writes, "used to think it would be a truly historic moral gain when crimes against humanity trumped the claims of 'national sovereignty' and placed a genuine responsibility to protect, a solemn duty to rescue, upon an 'international community.' " And as recently as the 1990s, "it was the left who argued most strongly for a humanitarian intervention - in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – and struggled to make such interventions work for the people not for big power interests." But like incompetent bettors, the left has suddenly swerved into a defense of absolute state sovereignty and international rules-games just as a moment in history when a world ruled and controled entirely by nation-states is in crisis.

The left should stand in relation to this new world as the late Charles Dickens stood to Victorian England - a radical reforming critic, 'fierce and corrosive', as Irving Howe put it, putting cruelty first. Our agenda should be global democracy-promotion, free trade unions, human rights, women's rights, economic development and social justice, making tyranny history, making poverty history. In short, a new global social-democracy.

However, faced with the puzzling contradictions of the new political landscape parts of the left are sullen and negativist - anti-this, anti-that, always anti-American, but deeply unsure what they are for. Faced with the colour-coded democratic revolutions in the ex-Stalinist states (and their US-funded NGOs), or the first signs of an Arab Spring (being cheered on by 'that cowboy Bush'), or the purple fingers of an Iraqi voter (walking out of a polling station guarded by coalition troops), or the smiles of women – women! - cabinet members in Afghanistan's newly elected government (the result of a war fought by the 'Great Satan'), too many on the liberal-left are sitting on their hands. Some are even sneering and scoffing. Eyes are rolled, subjects are changed. Consequence? Large swathes of people are opened up to the reactionary anti-imperialists – who offer to theorise and justify that negativism and that scoffing and that eye-rolling.

It's a bold call to hold on to the dream, in a dark hour. Johnson concludes with an extended soccer metaphor which might lose American readers. Which would be a shame, because if you gave up you'd miss this:


Enough, already. We need to create combative democracies marked by the proactive defence of the liberal constitutional order and the open society and promote that order and that society as non-negotiable normative ends. We should seek a more active role for an educated and aroused civil society.

In 2006 British Totalitarian Islamists marched on a public street with placards screaming 'Europe, You'll Come Crawling When the Mujahideen Come Calling'. The police looked on. Incensed passers-by were told that if they did not go away 'in ten seconds' they would be arrested. Here was Camus' 'curious reversal' in which 'innocence is called on to justify itself.' Well, enough of that.

Against Totalitarian Political Islam's anti-modernism, irrationalism, fear of freedom, loathing of the woman, hatred of the Jew, and the cult of master-slave human relations, we must wield a more powerful animating idea and educate citizens in devotion to it. I am in Paris so I do not need to cast around for that idea. It is the great promise of the liberal democratic revolutions of the 18th century – the animating moral ideas of liberté, equalité, fraternité, the rights of man, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We make those beautiful ideas the property of every individual by our efforts to continue - and extend globally - the social democratic, feminist and human rights revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

We must not be embarrassed to treat these animating ideas as sacred. It is not the least of the baleful consequences of postmodernism that a trite cynical deconstruction of all ideals, a playful relativising of all values, and an glib mockery of the notion of truth saps the sinews, and erodes the identity, of a combative democracy – terrorism is always 'terrorism' and democracy is always 'democracy'. Inverted commas have come to replace reason. Irony has displaced intellectual responsibility to ones fellows.

We need an alternative intellectual and cultural model to the Zealot and the Deconstructionist. The Italian democratic political philosopher Norberto Bobbio wisely called on us to adhere to 'the most salutary fruits of the European intellectual tradition, the value of enquiry, the ferment of doubt, a willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgement, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things'. This mentality we must pit against what Paul Berman has called 'the paranoid and apocalyptic nature of the totalitarian mindset'.

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